‘Who do you think is powering that spotlight?!’
Some reflections compiled during a seminar screening of ‘Fifty Million Merits’ in 2013
(episode 2 of Black Mirror, season 1)
There’s something remarkable in the moment when the last frame of a film fades to black, the credits begin to roll, and the audience is dead silent in the stillness; when there’s no immediate movement for the door as everyone sits still in their seats, half stunned and half pondering the world… Not many films achieve this. Mostly, the herd of viewers rustle toward the door, crunching popcorn underfoot that’s soon to be swept up by anonymous and ignored cleaners. The crowd then dissipates, heading for the car or the boutique coffee shop or the nearby store to buy a new hat… maybe a real one, maybe not.
Although it wasn’t screened at a cinema, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is one such production. When I screened the episode ‘Fifty Million Merits’ to a class yesterday, the students were at first (and only at first) speechless – and I dare say the present screening will have the same result. This is perhaps predictable on the one hand given the expert building of tension within the tightly wound plot, combined with the unsentimental and anti-redemptory lack of closure. Plus the film begs far more questions than it answers. But I think the silence stems from something else too. The episode hits hard, implicating its audience in a dystopian scenario that offers a sharp and wide-ranging critique of present day digital screen culture through a depiction of a not-so-distant ‘future’.
From the humiliation of people as ‘fake fodder’ on Reality TV; to the absurdity of the consumption of virtual goods for aesthetic purposes; to the bullying of people with large body sizes who have been demonised by violent computer games; to the blurred dividing line between pornography and celebrity culture; to the reliance of identity construction on ‘buying shit'; to the reinforcement of sexist, racist, and classist ideologies through both the media and the very structures of society; to the fundamental undermining of conventional conceptions of ‘truth’ and ‘reality'; ‘Fifty Million Merits’ has it all, and then some.
The protagonist Bing (played so powerfully by Daniel Kaluuya, also of the 2010 drama Chatroom) tells Abi: ‘It’s all just stuff. It’s… stuff. It’s confetti… When I look around here, I just want something real to happen. For once…’ Nothing is real for Bing anymore, and even his climactic act of subversion is neatly packaged, commodified and filtered by the inescapable structures that govern his life. The ‘reality’ of the imagery in the last frame remains ambiguous, for all time. Yet when we consider aspects of ‘our world’ – the program ‘options’ in prime time slots on our television schedules, or the ethnic origin of the ‘enemies’ in the latest combat console game, or the YouTube advertisements that can only be skipped after a short time or not at all – this film is clearly very ‘real’ (whatever that means…)
We might leave Black Mirror once the credits roll, but it might also choose to stay with us. Perhaps if we earn enough merits we can set it aside and forget about it. Why not take another cup of cuppliance and stress less? That spotlight won’t power itself…
One last thought (from 2014)…
I’ve seen this episode at least a dozen times now, and the significance of its wide-ranging critique continues to grow on me. Are the young people who ride those bikes, who power the entertainment ‘machine’, who seem to (at least in the vast majority of cases) unthinkingly devour problematic ideological messages through their ever-present screens, the ‘Digital Natives’ or ‘Generation Next’ conceptualised by political leaders, journalists, universities, industry employers, and those who promote a Media Studies 2.0 approach? Are they the produsers or prosumers that we’ve been trying to be throughout ALC201 Exploring New Media? Or are they just consumers – those who do not create, share, participate, and collaborate? We’ve seen a variety of student activities across the consumer-prosumer spectrum throughout the year… What have you been?
And what will you be in the future…?
With this question in mind, I strongly suggest you watch the following video:
For this week’s meLecture, I decided to focus solely on assignment advice through a few more in-seminar open discussions. I was hoping it would be one fifteen minute video max, but once we got going (and even after some fine editing) I couldn’t avoid having two parts… then again, less is not always more in some areas :)
Hope this helps! (given that I actually received an email thanking me for the very valuable poitns in this meLecture from a PhD student in Turkey who is not involved with the course or in any way assoicated with Deakin University, I’d say it might be useful… and it underlines the reach you can get when you leave a lecture theatre and visit cyberspace instead!
This week’s meLecture takes us into Module 3: ‘Mediating New Media’. The videos survey representations of digital media across a number of genres, including novels, console games, board games (or at least one board game, as there aren’t many examples that fit with our focus here – which is significant in itself), and feature films… I’m currently typing this post while watching Aaron Eckhart have his emails, bank account, mobile phone access, and other facets of his digital identity completely erased by what seems to be some malicious organisation. Right now he’s telling his young daughter to ‘keep your head down – they can’t identify you if they can’t get a full profile’. Now he’s walking across the foyer using a small piece of paper to disguise his face amidst the surveillance devices surrounding them.
Ah, they’re everywhere. The cameras, and the films about them…
I broke a personal record this week and actually made a meLecture in four parts. This wasn’t entirely intentional, but when you have a conversation with an industry practitioner who is saying brilliant things, vicious editing just feels, well, offensive! So you’ll have to forgive my audio-visual ‘verbosity’, but while I generally focus on quality over quantity, I think that in this case, the longer the better!
And a bonus few videos focusing on the Jewish Holocaust Centre, the location of our recent field trip:
At the upcoming field trip to the Jewish Holocaust Centre, feminist media scholar Dr Deb Waterhouse-Watson is going to deliver what I’m sure will be a riveting guest lecture on the complexities of how digital media has recently intersected (often in a problematic way) with potential and actual legal proceedings. A ‘teaser’ for this lecture – which I highly recommend you access before attending the field trip if possible – is included as part of this week’s meLecture…
And if that’s not enticement enough, Tiffany makes a guest appearance as well :)
Maybe I’m coming across as over-(cyber)sexed, but there’s so much interesting stuff to talk about in relation to this topic and I have one more issue for you!
One issue I didn’t touch on in any of the other material so far is highlighted by the title of a 2009 science-fiction film starring Bruce Willis. Surrogates is an intriguing depiction of how sexuality might be (?) mediated in the near(ish) future – although as with all of these kinds of films, it’s actually a commentary on today’s digital media practices. You can watch the trailer for Surrogates here, which will give you a fairly good idea of the film’s content. What seems to be the ‘message’ here? Does the film seem to put forward a dystopian perspective? If you’ve watched the film before, do you think the filmmakers effectively critique the sexualisation and eroticisation of the (particularly female) body in contemporary culture, which they seem to be trying to do, or is voyeuristic entertainment at the very core of the film’s attempt to engage audience members? You might also like to think about this film or others you have seen (such as Gamer, another 2009 production) in relation to Module 3 on cultural representations of digital media, which we’ll return to in good time…
I need a break from me now too, and am tempted to go play some Xbox – though I won’t be going near this one… ‘Thing’ from The Addams Family was always creepy enough…
A major factor that contributes to the all-pervasive culture of surveillance – this surveillance society – in which we live is a climate of fear. Indeed, we might almost call this a self-perpetuating climate of fear. Reflecting on 9/11, I asked a group of students this week whether they thought that, even though they had been born before 2001, they considered themselves to have experienced a ‘pre-9/11′ world. I was in first year university at the time of the September 11 attack and it was clear then that we were witnessing a groundbreaking moment after which nothing would be the same. There are other events also, like the Colombine High School massacre in April 1999, as well as similar tragedies in the United States and elsewhere in the world, which invariably see issues of surveillance being raised and (re)negotiated in the media. Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002) contains some fascinating sequences of bizarre news reports that exemplify the construction of a climate of fear – or even better, panic. Can you draw any parallels to Australia in this regard?
Many acts of surveillance have unquestionable value and cannot be simply shoved into a mono-dimensional vision of a dystopian world. Likewise, fear and concern can turn into polemical paranoia, and that just trivialises the issue as well. If you find examples surveillance like the RFID chip or RATs somewhat ‘freaky and creepy’ – if not downright disturbing – try to take a step back and examine what it means about digital media culture today…
I’m not saying you shouldn’t be scared, as there are arguably good reasons to be. But being analytical is important as well. And in the end, the scariest thing about all of this may just well be that we are not scared enough…
Enjoy the meLecture :)